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Lead Like Barnabas

By Ben Connelly

The most influential leader in the first century church might surprise many modern Christians.

In most caricatures, Barnabas is referenced as Paul’s sidekick in Paul’s mission and ministry. He’s often referenced as “such an encourager.” A few folks in some streams of evangelicalism will even acknowledge that he’s even referred to as an “apostle” (lower-case “a” of course; Acts 4:35). But beyond that, Barnabas isn’t referenced that much — especially in leadership circles. 

I submit that Barnabas was a far more vital leader in the early church than we give him credit for — at least in a western, “leaders-are-those-with-the-best-stage-presence” mentality. Without Barnabas, the Jerusalem church would have struggled financially — and the Antioch church might not have existed. Without Barnabas, Gentiles wouldn’t likely have been allowed into the Christian faith. And without Barnabas, a new convert named Saul wouldn’t have been accepted by Christian leaders. Barnabas may have led quietly and humbly, but he was faithful and present in many of the most important moments that shaped Christian history. Barnabas just may have been the most influential leader in the early church.

What Do We Know About Barnabas?

Barnabas’ role in the Bible is limited almost exclusively to Acts and Galatians. Here’s all we know about him with biblical certainty:

  • He was called “Joseph” and was financially generous to history’s first Church in Jerusalem (Acts 4:35)
  • He was willing to leave Jerusalem for the sake of making disciples in Antioch (Acts 11:22)
  • He was the first to welcome a newly-converted murderer named Saul into Christian community (Acts 9:26), then later recruited Saul to join the work at Antioch (Acts 11:26)
  • He was a trusted messenger of the Jerusalem and Antioch Churches (Acts 11:22, 30)
  • Maybe most commonly known, Barnabas and Paul traveled the Roman world together, taught Jews and Gentiles together, defended Gentile conversion at the Jerusalem counsel together, and made disciples together (most of the Book of Acts)
  • Finally and infamously, Barnabas was persuaded into sin by Peter (Gal. 2:13), and also separated from Paul after a “sharp disagreement” over the inclusion of John Mark on their team (Acts 15:39)

What We Miss About Barnabas

What this brief summary tells us is that not much is known about this man Barnabas. But, even in the references Scripture gives us, we might miss three vital things if we gloss over Barnabas too quickly.

First, when Saul (or Paul) is mentioned in the same sentence, Barnabas’ name comes first just as many times as Paul’s does. I once went to a concert with two headliners, instead of the more traditional opening band before the climatic main act. Show by show, the bands would switch which one played first and which played second. That seems to be the sense one gets as we read the biblical references to Barnabas and Paul. They were, after all, both apostles; both were on the same mission (at least until they split over John Mark — and even then, apparently Barnabas continued in apostolic mission even as Paul continued in his own). Again, it was Barnabas who recruited Paul to the apostolic work in Antioch in the first place! 

Maybe I simply learned Acts at the wrong churches and seminaries, but I always and only heard the pair referred to as “Paul and Barnabas.” Barnabas always seemed to me like the Robin to Paul’s Batman; the Samwise Gamgee to Paul’s Frodo Baggins. But from the bullet points above to the interchangeable position of their names through the Bible, it seemed like they were much more of a dynamic apostolic duo than they were one hero and one sidekick.

Second, Luke explains that when the people of Lystra began to worship Barnabas and Paul as gods, “Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker” (Acts 14:12). Even in their misguided worship of these apostles — “because of what Paul had done” (v. 11) — they didn’t give Paul the highest title; Paul was merely Hermes, a speaker and a son of Zeus. It was Barnabas they deemed to be Zeus himself — the quieter, less public, behind the scenes encourager was assumed to be the king of the Greek gods. 

That Barnabas is considered the greater leader and Paul merely the mouthpiece may seem backwards to our common perspective of famous, almost super-human Paul and his lowly valet. But it does echo a certain Hebrew leader, who God sent on the biggest mission in the Old Testament. Moses begged God, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue” (Ex. 4:10) and God’s response was to give him a Hermes — a speaker: “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well” (Ex. 4:14). Indeed, it seems that if we parallel these two “teams,” Barnabas is, in at least some functions, similar to Moses, and Paul similar to Aaron: “Aaron spoke all the words that the LORD had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people” (Ex. 4:30).

Third, while we don’t know much about Barnabas’ ministry after he and Paul parted ways, the Bible gives no indication that he ceased to be an apostle, or that his mission was completed just because his teammate left him. For the record, I wish the Bible gave us more of a glimpse into the conflict between these two imperfect missionaries striving to follow and serve Jesus — I think it would give us hope, as we fit that same category! But that’s an article for a different day. We do know that Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus, where tradition says he established a church and continued to see the gospel spread, until he was martyred on that island. The point is that Barnabas’ ministry wasn’t limited to his work with Paul: he continued to make disciples, plant churches, and give his life to God’s mission in his own right.

How Do We Lead Like Barnabas? 

A church leader’s role is to help members of the body of Christ — “many parts, yet one body” (1 Cor 12:20) — thrive in all its varied gifts. A leader’s call is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:11), rather than do all the ministry for people then wonder why we burn out so quickly and lament a lack of involvement in our churches. So maybe Barnabas is a model of leadership for us that looks different, but produces greater fruit than the solo leader with a few “yes-men (or -women)” at his side.

Churches need more leaders like Barnabas. They may not be known; they may never get credit. They may not have their ideas published or posted. But they’ll empower many people to great things. They’ll see the gospel multiplied because rather than being the one tree, they’ll work to plant an orchard of fruitful workers. They’ll work quietly and diligently, teaching, equipping, and even recruiting and deploying the next Pauls of our age. They’ll use their gifts to serve the body of Christ well. 

And while ancient Lystrans might call them Zeus who was greater than Hermes, our living God — who does see their work and know their name; and who alone righty deserves credit for any fruit in ministry or mission anyway — will say to them one day as he did at Barnabas’ martyrdom, “well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).


Ben Connelly

Ben Connelly is Director of Training for Saturate. After 19 years serving in local churches together, Ben and Jess now get to serve disciple-makers and planter couples across the world, as well as churches and organizations with a desire for sending. They live in Fort Worth, TX with their three kids, and host short-term foster placements, each on his or her way toward reunification or adoption.


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